If you were a child growing up in the eighties, no doubt you will recall fingerless gloves, The Human League, Walkmans and “It’s Friday, it’s five to five, it’s Crackerjack!”
After the introduction it would be swiftly followed by me jumping around the living room dancing myself dizzy to Chas and Dave singing the theme tune yelling “Crackerjack!”
Stu Francis was the presenter and when he wasn’t busy crushing grapes and wrestling Action Men you could find him dressed in his distinctive multi-coloured attire. To me, Stu Francis embodied the eighties. So when I was offered the chance to interview him I was curious to discover what Stu had been up to over the last 30 years…
“Crackerjack!” is the first thing I yell at him when we meet up, followed by “Apologies for that Stu, but I’ve just fulfilled a lifetime ambition.”
He laughs (politely) and moving swiftly on I ask him: “Why did it end?” “It finished in 1984 and I was the show’s last presenter. The show was very expensive to produce and at the time a new head had taken over. He believed that because the show went out at five to five, the cost of the show should fall into children’s TV budget instead of the ‘light entertainment’ budget.” The powers that be said decided that unless the children’s TV budget could pay it would have to end. It was all about the money.”
Stu’s signature quote ‘Ooh, I could crush a grape’, was the first of many, and I was intrigued to find out where this saying came from…
“I was on stage in a club, and there was a gang of women at the front, and they’re all laughing, and one lady had a really infectious laugh. I just leant over, and said ‘You’re enjoying yourself ’ and she said ‘I am, you bloody fool, I am’.
“I could feel the tension I thought ‘What am I going to say? I ended up saying ‘I’m glad you’re here. I’m so excited. I could… crush a grape!’ I don’t know where it came from.
Afterwards I went to the bar and as I approached there was two fellas stood there and one of them said to his mate ‘Oh, there he is – that ‘I could crush a grape man’. So that’s how it happened. All the other sayings were thought up by the show’s writers.”
After the demise of Crackerjack, Stu appeared in ‘Cheggers Plays Pop’ and went on to be a presenter on CITV for a couple of years. So what are his thoughts on children’s TV programmes nearly 30 years on?
“It’s all graphics and computer stuff and millions of cartoons. Supermarket television – buy ‘em off a shelf and stick them on. When you see Mr Tumble and all that, it’s a breath of fresh air; at least they’re performing. It’s interactive – like Crackerjack. Double or drop! When I did Crackerjack, we had everything on from pop bands to impressionists, singers and dancers. It was a variety show with games, or a game show with variety. It was early doors Generation Game.”
Since his exit from our screens Stu has been busy in the world of pantomime and this year you can catch him at The Albert Halls, Bolton, where he’ll be playing the role of Stewie in Jack and the Beanstalk. “Stewie is Jack’s brother,” he says. “He plays the village idiot. Jack is the sensible one.” His brother Jack is played by Ben-Ryan Davies, who played the part of Ronan in Waterloo Road.
The part of King Stonybroke is played by Charlie Cairioli Jnr the son of Blackpool’s most famous slapstick clown.
“I’ve worked with Charlie a lot. When we did ‘Crush a Grape’ on ITV, I got Charlie to be one of my sidekicks.”
Stu, now a grandad, looks forward to his children and grandchildren coming to watch him in panto. “Panto is all about families,” says Stu. “For many children, watching a panto is the first time many will have entered a theatre and hopefully they go on to see other productions as well.
“It’s the first step in a theatre for a lot of kids. Panto’s got everything that theatre’s about. It’s got light and shade, and it’s got pathos, comedy, slapstick. I suppose the nearest thing to it is the circus. It’s a good thing for the family; of course the kids enjoy it, but mum and dad go, too. Pantomime crosses all those boundaries. There’s something in it for grandma, grandad, mum and dad, and the kids. If you don’t like this, wait two minutes, you’ll laugh. When I’ve performed panto at Bolton before, it’s packed with adults. It’s like ‘Spot the Kid.’ It’s full of adults! It’s escapism.”
Son of a bookie from Bolton, Stu says his parents were anything but ‘showbiz’. “They never held me back or advised me not to do it,” says Stu, “but they never advised me to do it. They thought ‘He’ll give up soon’.” Stu’s early career began on holiday camps as a singer, later switching to stand-up comedy appearing in summer seasons at clubs and in theatres. He looked up to comedians such as Norman Collier, Frank Carson and Tom O’Connor.
“All had their own approach. I just loved comics, especially Northern comics because you have to have a bloody good sense of humour to live here, that’s what I say.”
And with that the interview is over and off he trots, he’s off to jump off a doll’s house…